State Asks Court for More Time on Adoption Case

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The state on Monday asked the Alaska Supreme Court for more time in a case involving the adoption of a Yup’ik child, a case that tribes say will determine how the Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, will be implemented in Alaska, and show whether Governor Bill Walker is serious about campaign pledges he made to work cooperatively with tribes.

Under the terms of ICWA, Alaska Native children must be placed for adoption with their relatives or tribal members unless it’s clearly in the child’s interests to do otherwise. But an Alaska Supreme Court ruling last September allowed a non-Native couple to adopt a Native child after the Governor Sean Parnell administration successfully argued the child’s Native grandmother failed to file a petition to adopt, a requirement the state contends was set by a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

But attorneys for the grandmother and the village of Tununak maintain the grandmother’s request to the state’s Office of Children’s Services, and her court testimony stating she wanted to adopt her grand-daughter, meet the higher court’s standards. They say requiring a petition to adopt would create a costly barrier between Native children and Native families. They submitted a petition for a rehearing of the case, and the U.S. Department of Justice joined them with anadvisory, or amicus, brief.

Jacqueline Schafer is an assistant attorney general in the Alaska Department of Law. “The state has requested an additional 30-day extension because the administration needs additional time to determine its response to the issues raised in the petition and the amicus brief,” she said.

Lloyd Miller, of Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Miller and Munson, who is representing the grandmother, says he’s encouraged the state has asked for more time. “I think it’s to the attorney general’s credit that he is now open to the possibility of taking a different position, and sorting through whether or not to do so. I think that’s very important and it does takes time.

Miller says the Walker administration is right to take the time to look at the larger implications of Tununak v. Alaska.

“This case is a potentially explosive case and could well define the administration’s position in Alaska Native affairs and in particular the relationship the administration is going to have with tribes in Alaska,” Miller said. “So the more time the state takes to carefully decide what it’s going to do, the better. It’s now up to the Alaska Supreme Court to decide whether to grant the state a time extension.

Schafer says the state is working to make it easier for relatives and tribal members to adopt Native children:

“Regardless of whether the state changes its position in this appeal” Schafer said.  The state has already started down the path of finding ways to work with tribes to ease the adoption requirements and to improve OCS services to Alaska Native communities.”

The state’s request for an extension comes after the Alaska Federation of Natives and organizations like the Association of Village Council Presidents, Tanana Chiefs Conference and the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska last week asked the state to change its position.

Joaqlin Estus is a reporter at KNBA in Anchorage.

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